New African passport to boost mobility within the continent

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The African Union has introduced a new passport designed to provide open, visa-free access to all 54 member-states
  • Currently only available to heads of state and other senior government officials, the passport is expected to be more widely available across Africa by 2018
  • There are, however, significant barriers to implementation, especially the need to harmonise passport technologies and to liberalise trade and immigration policies across member-states

The African Union has introduced a new passport designed to provide visa-free access to each of its 54 member-states (that is, all African nations except Morocco). Launched at the 27th African Union Assembly in Kigali in July, the new passport will initially be available only to heads of state, government ministers, and AU officials. The details of the rollout are not yet clear, however the AU expects the passport to be widely available by 2018 and has set a goal to see visa-free travel in place across Africa by 2020.

The Chair of the African Union Commission (AUC), Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, described the initiative as “a steady step toward the objective of creating a strong, prosperous, and integrated Africa, driven by its own citizens and capable of taking its rightful place on the world stage.” Dr Dlamini-Zuma presented the first two passports during the Assembly to Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Idriss Deby Itno, the President of Chad.

rwandan-president-paul-kagame-and-chad-president-idriss-deby-itno-with-the-first-ever-african-passports
Rwandan President Paul Kagame (left) and Chad President Idriss Deby Itno with the first-ever African passports.

The new passports will bear both the name of the African Union and that of the issuing country, and are meant to ease persistent barriers to mobility among African states. The African Development Bank notes that only 13 of Africa’s 55 countries allow all Africans entry without a visa (or permit them to secure a visa on arrival).

The difficulty, uncertainty, and expense of crossing borders in Africa is seen as a significant barrier to trade and exchange within the continent – academic mobility included. While there are significant regional flows of students in some parts of Africa, internal trade and mobility are still modest overall. Intra-continental trade, for example, makes up only about 11% of trade across Africa and many countries still have closer ties, in terms of travel, immigration, and trade, to former colonial powers than to their continental neighbours. Rapidly expanding populations and economies throughout Africa, however, mean that the status quo is increasingly under pressure as momentum builds to stronger ties among neighbouring states.

“Visa openness is about facilitating free movement of people. It is about getting more people mobile, to carry out their business easily, spontaneously, quickly, with minimum cost,” says the African Development Bank report. “That applies whether you are a businessman or woman, a student or researcher, a cross-border trader or entrepreneur…Africa’s population is expected to rise to over two billion people by 2050. The continent’s economic transformation needs to promote inclusive growth. Expanding opportunities for a growing population puts skills high up the agenda. And skills and talent mobility go hand in hand. Removing time, cost, and process obstacles to moving freely across the continent empower Africans to make study or job choices that impact on their incomes.”

The answer, African leaders conclude, is to promote free movement within the continent, an approach that is exemplified by the Schengen Area in Europe where 26 signatory nations have opted for common rules governing the unrestricted movement of people, goods, and capital. However, the ambitious scope of the African passport initiative, coupled with its tight timeline for implementation, have led many to question whether or not the scheme can be widely adopted by 2018 or even 2020. Writing for The Conversation, Cristiano D’Orsi, a research fellow and lecturer at the University of Pretoria, points out that many African states lack the biometric technology used in the passport, noting that only 13 of the 54 AU member-states currently have biometric passport controls in place.

Mr D’Orsi notes as well that politics and public sentiment in many parts of the continent run against increased migration. “There is already resistance to migration. This comes in the form of pre-existing visa barriers to other African nationals,” he says. “Some countries are averse to allowing entry to more migrants due to high unemployment rates.” Other observers have noted that the expense of air travel within Africa is itself an important impediment to greater trade and mobility among AU members.

As these critiques suggest, the African passport may necessarily be only a first step toward greater mobility within the continent. More to the point, more comprehensive (and pan-African) agreements, particularly with respect to labour mobility, will likely be part of any substantive reduction in current trade barriers.

As with trade policy, many have also pointed out that there are significant issues with African education that may also have to be addressed before the continent sees greater movements of students among AU members. Speaking to University World News, Professor Jenny Lee of the University of Arizona, and a visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town, observed that many African countries still lack the higher education infrastructure and available services to accommodate greater numbers of students: “With increased mobility, there needs to be increased attention to the education and experiences of international students upon their arrival to ensure their transition and success. I doubt such effects are being considered.”



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